KUALA LUMPUR, June 21 — Datuk Seri Najib Razak had given more than RM22 million in 39 cheques which he personally signed to the director of company which prepared his speeches as prime minister and managed the media for him, the High Court heard today in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) trial.
Datuk Mohd Omar Mustapha, who was the director of the company Semarak Konsortium Satu Sdn Bhd, said this while testifying as the 45th prosecution witness in Najib's trial over the misappropriation of RM2.28 billion of 1MDB's funds.
Omar, 51, who described himself as a businessman, however stressed that the RM22,981,688 total sum which he personally received from Najib from March 2011 to April 2014 – for Semarak Konsortium Satu's services – were purely in cheques to the company.
“Tan Sri, I went to see the PM in his official office every month for three years, I collected signed cheques from him, I didn't collect bags of cash, I banked those cheques into my corporate account for three years without exception, without questioning by the bank, without any red flags at all,” he told Najib's lead defence lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah.
Under questioning from deputy public prosecutor Ahmad Akram Gharib, Omar confirmed that the cheques he received from Najib every month would be in “six figures” and would roughly be around the sum of one of the cheques shown in court – an August 6, 2013 cheque for the sum of RM303,000.
When Akram asked if Najib had personally signed these cheques, Omar replied: “Yes, in front of me”.
Asked further if he knew where Najib's payments came from, Omar said he could only confirm that the cheques he received from Najib were “unnamed” cheques or “numbered cheque account” with no names printed on the cheques to identify where the money was coming from.
“The cheques I received from Datuk Seri Najib had not printed the name of Datuk Seri Mohd Najib, meaning as a recipient of the cheque, I cannot infer who is the owner of the cheque, I can only attest to the fact he was signatory to the cheque. It's an important distinction.
“So at no time did I infer nor assume or could I find out whose account this was, and neither was it my business. As far as I was concerned, he was my client, the cheque did not bear a printed name, he merely was a signatory,” he replied.
The term “numbered account” refers to bank accounts that are identified by only a number, instead of the name of the bank account's owner. This means that others would be unable to see who owns it.
Omar also told Akram that he did not know the source of money that Najib used to pay Semarak Konsortium Satu.
Omar said international public relations firm APCO Worldwide – among the biggest globally and headquartered in the US with branches in over 30 countries – had a branch in Malaysia, but the Malaysian government had on April 13, 2010 through a written parliamentary reply confirmed that it had a contract worth RM76.8 million for the year of July 2009 to June 2010.
After finding out that APCO's contract with the Malaysian government was not extended and seeing a business opportunity, Omar contacted then APCO Malaysia CEO Paul Stadlen – who agreed to shift out of the company to work under Omar's Semarak Konsortium Satu.
Omar, who was Najib's main special officer from 2004 to 2006 when the latter was deputy prime minister, said he had in 2011 met with Najib at the Prime Minister's Office to offer the services of writing speeches in English and an international media team, on an reimbursable basis where he would present costs every month before claiming for payment for the costs along with profit margins.
Omar said he and Najib both did not ask for contracts, and that the services provided were on a verbal agreement to prevent any politicising of the matter if there was a written agreement, such as in the case of APCO Malaysia.
Omar also said the overseas experts whom he had identified to join the international media team were more comfortable working on a freelance basis without being tied down to any contracts, as this would be the first time they work and live in Asia.
Omar told the court that Semarak Konsortium Satu prepared speech texts in English for Najib, coordinated matters with international media based in Malaysia, coordinated Najib's interviews with international media during official visits overseas and prepared drafts for his interviews or articles in the media.
He added that the company's team included speechwriters who had written speeches for former UK prime ministers. Among them Gordon Brown's speechwriter Charlotte Carr, David Cameron's speechwriter Samuel Coates, and speechwriter Alexander Marklew for Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
Omar also listed the team as including Stadlen, former UK PM Tony Blair's media adviser Benedict Macon-Cooney and Facebook's communications head Lachlan Mackenzie who was speechwriter to a former UK minister of energy and climate change.
Throughout the three-year period from 2011 to 2014, Omar said this team under Semarak Konsortium Satu were staying in Kuala Lumpur and assisted by several Malaysian support staff, adding that the team was serving Najib in his capacity as then prime minister.
Omar said he was informally introduced to Najib in the 1990s and had began to help the latter who was defence minister by writing his speeches “almost 100 per cent” in English because he wasn’t proficient in Malay.
He added that he is not a politician but has a “deep interest in politics”.
Omar said APCO was already serving the government of Malaysia as far back as 2007 which was before Najib became the prime minister in 2009 and believed that the firm was managing Malaysia's reputation internationally.
As for Semarak Konsortium Satu, Omar said his company's sole client for its speechwriting and public relations work was Najib, and collected payment from the latter for work done in terms of speechwriting, public relations and management of media.
“I think if you look at the public relations side with respect to international media, I think there was a lot of need for an incoming PM and for a PM who actively interacts on the international stage. I think Datuk Seri Najib was very active throughout his political career, or meeting with international media, with international writers of stature, with think tanks, with business organisations, in almost every capacity, for his work as a politician.
“So in that sense, I think the role of people like Paul Stadlen would be to help smoothen out the interactions of a PM, whether inside the country or outside the country,” he said, claiming that other former Malaysian prime ministers had engaged the services of speechwriters.
When asked by Shafee, Omar specifically named Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as an example of a former prime minister who had used speechwriting services and claimed that current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim had used speechwriters as a deputy prime minister.
According to Omar, there was no documentation or invoices from his company Semarak Konsortium Satu to Najib or vice versa; for example the RM303,000 payment via the August 6, 2013 cheque, apart from brief notes on details of the monthly costs of hiring the experts, office costs, accommodation and travel costs.
Omar said that when he met Najib every month, he would give the then prime minister a copy of the statement of the operating costs incurred in the previous month covering aspects such as the experts' salaries, their accommodation, their flights, and that Najib would have a look before issuing a cheque to him.
Omar said he had billed Semarak Konsortium Satu's charges to Najib personally and felt the amount he had charged was “absolutely reasonable”.
Explaining the lack of a written agreement between Semarak Konsortium Satu and Najib to avoid politicisation by those in politics, Omar said APCO's services to the Malaysian government was discontinued partly as a "result of the disclosure" to the public of a written agreement between APCO and the government.
Asked if the controversy on APCO was due to the fees' amount or the company itself, Omar replied: “I'm not sure, it could have been both, I think it was the idea that a foreign company was operating in Malaysia, so there was a bit of xenophobia involved, but also the quantum was rather large, RM76 million.”
Comparing APCO's RM76 million bill for a year's work to Semarak Konsortium Satu's RM22 million over a three-year period or an average of RM7 million per year, Omar said his company's charges were about 10 per cent of APCO's bill.
Omar said the entire sum of over RM22 million went into Semarak Konsortium Satu's Maybank bank account, and that he had provided the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) during investigations with all the documentation for his company's accounts and its payments to the bank accounts of the UK individuals which were employed by the company.
Questioned by Shafee, Omar said officials at the Prime Minister's Office were “fully aware” that Najib had engaged the paid services of these external speechwriters, as there would be need for these speechwriters at times to get input from the PMO while preparing speeches that were not drafted from scratch.
Omar, who was born in Johor and is a graduate from the University of Oxford, completed his testimony today.
Former Treasury secretary-general Tan Sri Mohd Irwan Serigar Abdullah, who was recalled to testify as the 42nd prosecution witness, today also completed his testimony.
Najib's 1MDB trial is set to resume on July 7 with 44th prosecution witness Kevin Michael Swampillai to continue testifying.
Najib's wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, whose passport was temporarily released by the Court of Appeal last Thursday from June 15 to July 7 to travel to Singapore to visit her daughter, was seen attending the 1MDB trial proceedings today.